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Once you know what goes on behind those kitchen doors, dining out will never be the same again.

From Chef to Critic

It's been five years now since I last peeled off a soiled chef coat and tossed it with symbolic finality into my restaurant's laundry bin. I was eager to leave behind the late nights, the difficult owners and the usually less-than-adequate compensation, but I also knew I would miss the creative outlet and the interesting company. At the time, I'd have balked at the idea of writing restaurant reviews. Like most chefs, I routinely disparaged critics as pompous and ignorant, even when their reviews were positive. But writing reviews has filled a creative void in my new "professional life" and has allowed me to indulge my continued fascination with food — even if it makes me a turncoat.

Not surprisingly, my years in the kitchen left a lasting mark that still colors my dining experience and my critical perspective. Although I'd like to think it brings credibility to my criticism, it's also an obstacle. I have to remind myself that my readers' interest in a restaurant has more to do with their subjective dining experience than deconstructing the food-preparation process. This is something I am personally prone to. A plate arrives at my table like an intriguing puzzle that I ache to solve — "So let's see … they probably have a shallot-wine reduction in a bain marie and they whisk cold butter in at the last minute … those are 7- or 8-ounce salmon steaks, and the red onions are charred in advance and reheated under the broiler while they fire the fish, and then presto … 'order up!'" But the customer doesn't care. The customer goes to the restaurant precisely so that someone else will worry about these details.

In fact, often the quality of service is as important to the customer as the quality of the fare. This is a fact that is still difficult for me to accept. As anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows, restaurants cultivate an "us vs. them" attitude between the kitchen and wait staff. In our heat-induced dementia we imagined ourselves as tortured artistic geniuses, and the servers as little more than logistical necessaries who made undeservedly fat tips off our hard work.

But despite my allegiance to the kitchen, in some ways, my experience makes me more critical of my former colleagues. For example, I have a low tolerance for what I call purveyor shortcuts. Every day a pushy salesperson from some food supplier tries to sell a chef a timesaving culinary shortcut. Most of them seem like good business decisions, but inevitably result in worse products. It starts small. Instead of fresh whole chickens that someone has to break down, the sales person gets you to order half-chickens cleaned and ready to roast. And then it escalates. He convinces you that if you get the individually quick-frozen boneless chicken breasts, you can come in an hour later in the morning, which, at the time, seems to make up for the fact that the chicken tastes something like cardboard. Then, since you've got no chicken carcasses for stock, you find yourself sheepishly buying some appalling instant chicken base, at which point you're well on your way to making your menu virtually indistinguishable from the 8,000 other restaurants that use the identical processed shortcuts. I'm immediately suspicious of any kitchen that employs more than a few of these.

I'm also cautious about ordering daily specials that don't seem special. When a "special" is nothing more than a dressed-up item from the regular menu, I assume the worst. More than likely whatever is "on special" is "getting tired" or "needs to move" — both of which are euphemisms for something old enough that you personally wouldn't eat but that you'd sell to a customer for 20 bucks. I've seen chefs drench fish in lemon juice, rinse it with water to remove the ammonia smell and then run it as a blackened "special" — scary stuff. I'm especially skeptical at the beginning of the week when the kitchen's trying to move the overstocked items from the weekend and is apt to be staffed with the "B-team," who might not even recognize that piece of fish or meat is "on the edge."

Sometimes knowledge sours the dining experience. One unfortunate consequence of my culinary service is that regardless of the quality of the fare, I can't really relax at any restaurant on a super-busy night. This is because I empathize too much with the staff. I know what they're going through. To this day, I have recurring nightmares where the order tickets keep coming in one after another, each barked out by a frenzied waiter, who adds some impossible and confusing special request: "one tuna, pan seared, but no oil use water, he wants the beurre blanc from the salmon special, but make it without wine and butter and add the braised cabbage from the duck but no cruciferous vegetables — he's deathly allergic!" Or — and this is a request I actually got once — "One veggie stir fry but make it blackened!" Huh? In my dream, the orders arrive one after the other until they're dropping off the ticket line into a scattered pile on the floor, while I stand frozen behind the line like a small pitiful rodent caught in headlights and waiting to be run over.

All in all though, I think knowledge is a good thing, and the education I received in kitchens makes me appreciate dining out even more. To this end, I offer one piece of advice to those who frequent good restaurants. Once in a while, when you're at a restaurant where you trust the kitchen, order something that doesn't appeal to you, something that you'd normally pass over without thinking — you'll probably be surprised. And you'll leave with a more educated palate.

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